“Hidden Figures” is based on the lives of mathematicians, Katherine Goble-Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). Hollywood could not make it up—nor would Hollywood make it up.
These African-American mathematicians played vital roles, behind-the-scenes, in helping make the American space program actually work. Yes. They were that vital and most of the world, including our community, didn’t know much, if anything about them, until now.
The story begins in 1926 with math prodigy Katherine Goble-Johnson (Henson). Fast forward and as an adult, she is a working member of the West Computing Group at Langley. Inside the top secret compound are 20 other African-American women, geniuses—“computers”—who worked segregated from the “white computers” in the East Group, which is housed in a dreary basement office.
It’s inside these surroundings that Katherine’s friend and colleague Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) supervises the brilliant group but without benefit of that official supervisor title or the salary that would go with it, sending the “colored computers” on complicated assignments around the research facility.
Mary Jackson (Monae) is the most vocal, demonstrating her frustration about the injustice that surrounds them all. When the quick-witted Jackson is placed on the team working on the Mercury capsule prototype, her supervisor (Olek Krupa) instantly recognizes her gift and urges her to sign up for the engineer training program—no simple feat in the Jim Crow South.
Katherine is the only person on-site with a knack for analytic geometry, a necessary edge to joining the Space Task Group, although her brilliance is repeatedly challenged.
There is no warm welcome, even within the inner core, with the passive-aggressive behavior from engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) almost costing her a position.
Katherine and the group’s director, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), maintain a delicate balancing act as if their similar character traits, laser focus, somehow binds them.
Some of the most charming moments of the film are when we go inside the lives of the central trio. We learn that the widowed Katherine’s budding romance with a steely military man (Mahershala Ali) is an unexpected gift for herself and her three little girls. In Mary’s life, her husband is afraid that his wife’s ambition would not be rewarded, offering advice such as, “Freedom is never granted to the oppressed.”
The sturdiest and wisest of the three, Dorothy, observes that “any upward movement is movement for us all,” and when the new IBM system is installed she sees the writing on the wall for her department and studies the machine, saving her job and the department.
If the devil indeed lives in the details, one of the best moments of professional defiance and triumph comes from Katherine, who delivers an echoing showstopper when she describes the half-mile sprints she’s required to make, several times a day, to a “colored” women’s bathroom which, it so happens, is located inside another building.
The movie is beautiful to watch in part because of the tremendous work of cinematographer Mandy Walker, who captures a feeling of a time long gone. The music elevates the true story. It is supplied by producer Pharrell Williams.
Always the lady, Henson’s pace, running through the long halls in heels, gives another dimension to the challenges of being a woman, facing the obvious injustice and still rising to the occasion, smashing dull expectations of what an African-American woman could and could not achieve.
There is strong chemistry between the three leads, and Henson gives life to Katherine’s humility; Spencer is the picture of working wisdom; and musician turned actress, Monae offers clear proof, especially after her wonderful performance in “Moonlight,” that she’s a compelling screen presence.
This true story deserves to be told. This remarkable movie should be supported by any community that values knowledge and truth and enjoys good old-fashioned family entertainment.
Katherine Goble-Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson are superwomen. They are American heroes and they deserve this heartfelt tribute.
“Hidden Figures” stars Taraji P. Henson, Olivia Spencer, Janelle Monae and Kevin Costner, with Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell, Kimberly Quinn and Olek Krupa. It is directed by Theodore Melfi and written by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly.